Sunday, October 12, 2003

Ghosts (or at least their stories)
ride the river

By Jeff Wilson
Enquirer contributor

America's first female riverboat pilot, Mary Greene of Cincinnati.
It was a woman's voice that woke first mate Mike Williams when he thought himself alone on the famous steamboat Delta Queen. The sound of a slamming door led Williams to the engine room, where a broken intake pipe for the boilers would have spelled disaster were it not for his visitor.

Afterward, there was no evidence that anyone else had been on the boat.

So who whispered in his ear?

It depends on whom you ask. Williams insists it was the ghost of river pilot Mary Greene, who many years before had died on the Delta Queen.

Other people also claim that they encountered the ghost of Mary Greene: a TV cameraman, a historian, several crewmembers and a lounge singer.

Stories of the supernatural in river valleys are as old as riverboats themselves. While Americans have grown less superstitious over time, you still can find plenty of river people who swear they have encountered a ghost - and people who believe them.

Fortunately, for those who have purchased Tall Stacks cruise tickets, encountering riverboat ghosts isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some spirits are quite benevolent.

A few river ghosts like to exercise their creativity, playing a fiddle or a banjo. Even the long-deceased novelist Hamlin Garland has, according to certain parties, returned to his river valley homestead in a ghostly form.

Some are amorous, like the ghost who, when his widow returned to the knoll where they used to meet, whispered in her ear.

There are phantom ships floating down dark rivers, and phantom orchestra playing phantom waltzes.

Or not - depending on whom you ask.

River historian Gerald Sutphin of Huntington, W. Va., spoke recently about the Delta Queen to a room full of river enthusiasts at the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County. His audience was so keen on the subject that sometimes Sutphin's sentences were finished for him.

Sutphin clearly admires Mary Greene, one of the first women to become a steamboat captain. Greene spent 59 years riding up and down rivers. A great storyteller, she is the main character in many of the tales told about the Delta Queen, some more fanciful than others.

Sutphin steered clear of Mary Greene ghost lore until the question and answer session, at which point the subject of ghost stories was broached. His response was simple and straightforward.

"There are people who believe in ghosts and people who do not," he said. "I, myself, do not."

The discussion did not end there, however. In the audience were two of Mary Greene's granddaughters, and both offered their opinions.

"I don't believe in ghosts," Mary Greene Stewart said with obvious disdain. "I think they're a bunch of hogwash."

Her sister, Jane Greene, sees the matter in a more complex light. She cites Phyllis Dale, once a lounge singer on the Delta Queen, as one "credible" witness.

"She isn't some kind of screwball," Jane insisted.

It was Dale who spotted what looked like an old woman wearing a long, flowing robe and holding a candle walking down a dark hallway. A year later Dale saw a statue of Mary Greene that bore a strong resemblance to the ghost.

Jane Greene also suspects there might be something to the stories because she also had "some weird experiences" on the Delta Queen.

One came flying through the air.

"Red birds were always bad luck for us," Jane Greene said. Whenever someone in her family saw one, "we'd find out about an hour later that someone died.

"One day a cardinal perched on the railing (of the Delta Queen), and my mother I said, I wonder who's going to die now. After that, someone came to the door and told me a cousin died."

Jane cites the story of a famous accident as further evidence that the spirit world likes to intervene in human affairs.

An ardent teetotaler, Mary Greene thought alcohol had no business on Greene Line boats. It took her iron will to keep the Delta Queen alcohol-free until her death at age 80.

After Greene died, a bar was added to the steamboat. Shortly after it opened, a barge smashed through the walls of the Delta Queen. The point of entry was the bar.

The name of that barge was Captain Mary.

Coincidence? It depends on whom you ask.